Dr Asad Rahmani
The writer is an ornithologist and conservationist; former director of BNHS and now the scientific adviser to The Corbett Foundation as well as the governing council member of Wetlands International, South Asia
Politicians are known for shedding crocodile tears. I do not know who created this idiom, but I think it is a great insult to the crocodile as this majestic animal does not have such behaviour or reasons to do so. A few years ago, a senior politician speaking in the Lok Sabha sarcastically mentioned that nearly Rs 1300 crore would be spent to make underpasses for wildlife “from taxpayers’ money” in the Pench Tiger Reserve. First of all, the figures could be wrong as only Rs 800 crore was spent; secondly, as a taxpayer, I have no problem with the government using my tax for such virtuous causes. But I have a huge problem if my income tax is used to subsidize food for Parliamentarians; I have a huge problem if my income tax is used to give life-long pensions to chief ministers, legislators and sundry leaders even if they were on their job for a week; I have a huge problem when my income tax is used to build giant statues to fulfil someone’s egos; I have a huge problem when my income tax is used to create large cemented parks, after cutting down ancient trees, in memory of departed leaders; I have a huge problem… (the list can go on and on).
Incidentally, even if we make long underpasses for wildlife in protected areas, who do the job, who gets the supervisor’s salary, and who gets labour charges? – All human beings. We do not give a salary to a tiger or a deer! Taxpayers’ money is circulated back to human beings in one form or another. As economists tell us: Money in circulation adds to the GDP!
While constructing a road or a railway line or a canal, engineers study topography, geology, terrain, drainage, human habitation, religious structures, existing infrastructures, farmland and other issues, and only then prepare a detailed project report (DPR) with a budget. If there are rivers or/and streams, bridges and culverts have to be built. If there is human habitation, it has to be avoided, as is the case with farmlands or historical monuments. Drainage, geology and topography also decide the cost of the road/railway line. No complaint, no parliament question, no politics. However, whenever there is a question of building underpasses if the road/railway crosses a protected area, or to build underground the ‘bird killer’ transmission lines, the question of cost comes up. Why can’t we say, building underpasses or diverting a road is a part of the internal cost of the total budget of the project? For example, if the cost of building a road is Rs 5,000 crore, and building underpasses on wildlife corridors will cost Rs 800 crore, the total cost of the project is Rs 5,800 crore. This cost should come from the DPR. There is no “extra cost” for a cheap politician to crib about. When the cost of building a bridge over a river is not an “extra cost”, when diverting the road to avoid human habitation is not an “extra cost”, how come building underpasses for our precious wildlife becomes an extra cost? Anyway, these infrastructures are built with taxpayers’ money. If our politicians are so worried about taxpayers and their money, I request them to pay at least the road toll tax of their cavalcade. Why are they exempted from toll tax?
Just a few examples of how much we spend (waste) on our netas - some justified, but mostly, unjustified. We have 4,120 MLAs and 462 MLC, a total of 4,582. If an average salary and other perks come to Rs 2 lakh per elected leader per month, it means we spend nearly 92 crore rupees per month, or Rs 1,100 crore per year. In Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, we have 776 parliamentarians. Every neta gets around Rs 5 lakh as salary and expenses, or a total of nearly 39 crore per month or 565 crore rupees per year. In other words, we spend 1.5 billion rupees just on their salaries and sundry expenses. If we include various perks such as housing, free travel, medicine, security, foreign junkets, etc., the total cost will be 3 billion Indian rupees per year. The cost of security of netas is another 2 billion Indian rupees. All this comes from taxpayers’ money. Interestingly, a few years ago, a canteen in the Parliament House was the cheapest in India where tea was sold for Re 1, soup Rs 5.50, chapati Re 1, chicken Rs 24.50, biryani Rs 8 and fish curry Rs 13. All this comes from taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Do you need more examples to see where the problem lies?
In the 2019-2020 budget, only a paltry Rs 2,954.70 crore was allocated to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. It is not even 0.20 per cent of the total budget. This budgetary allocation of the MoEFCC includes funding for the Climate Change Action Plan, Forest Survey of India, National Green Tribunal, National Tiger Conservation Authority, Project Elephant, the Central Pollution Control Board, and the National Coastal Management Programme. Project Tiger, which is perhaps one of the most famous activities of the MoEFCC and always in the news, gets a paltry Rs 350 crore for 50 tiger reserves-or just Rs 7 crore per tiger reserve. Mind you, these 50 tiger reserves may have 70 per cent of the world’s tigers.
How much a good tiger reserve earns from tiger tourism? The figures are mind-boggling. In a remarkable report prepared by India’s leading tiger expert Dr Raghunandan Singh Chundawat, titled, The value of Wildlife Tourism around Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan for Wildlife Conservation and Local Communities, in 2016-17, more than 460,000 visitors came, generating Rs 19.57 crore as park fee alone. Another Rs 217.2 crore was added to the local economy. The report, funded by Bagh AAP Aur Van (BAAVAN) and TOFTigers highlights that the “considerable economic benefits and attendant improvement in quality of life achieved are largely restricted to communities and villagers living within the periphery of Sawai Madhopur (within 4 kms radius of the entry gate).” It is estimated that the famous tigress Machali generated tourism revenue of about Rs 71 crore for the park during her decade’s rule of the lakes of Ranthambore life. As Julian Mathews of TOFTigers pointed out to me in one of his emails: “Global studies have shown that for every $1 spent by Governments on nature conservation in PAs – you can get up to US$67 in tourism revenue returns.”
Dr Chundawat produced a report for four tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh, highlighting the importance of tiger-based tourism that can enhance wildlife conservation in general and improvement in the condition of local people. A study of the values of tiger reserves by the Centre for Ecological Services Management at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, found that India’s 10 big tiger reserves value nearly Rs 600,000 crore. The health benefit derived from these reserves ranges between Rs 11,000 crore and Rs. 34,600 crore. Interestingly, even tiger reserves such as Palamau without a single tiger can have an ecosystem service value of over Rs100,000 crore. The study only looked at two attributes: Total tree stock and total annual flow of ecosystem services. Intangible services such as fresh air, solace, happiness, and pleasure that we get from tiger reserves have not been quantified. Can any economist monetize the value of pleasure when a person sees a tiger? Rs 6 lakh crore is the value of 10 tiger reserves: think what would be the tangible value of 50 tiger reserves, and all the 700 protected areas! The figures will be mind-boggling.
I suggest all politicians and conservation leaders study the classic report ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ by banker-turned-conservationist Pavan Sukhdev. I know putting a price tag on Nature is controversial but nothing is as controversial as some of our lawmakers’ thinking.